Ever since I read Treasure Island as a young boy (it was the first ‘classic’ novel I read; I think I was nine years old), I’ve had a soft spot for pirates and the Caribbean. But I am no big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean films and I never would have watched Black Sails (which, knowing Starz cable-TV serials, I assumed would contain an endless series of violent and sexual encounters and not much of interest by way of plot) had Katrina not mentioned to me one day that she thought I should give it a chance (she knows my taste fairly well).
So I picked up the first two seasons for $10 a piece at a Black Friday sale (seemed appropriate) and gave them a chance. And was very pleasantly surprised. Sure, Black Sails really is an endless series of violent and sexual encounters (including the kind of gratuitous sex and violence I abhor but have come to expect from Starz), but there is indeed a compelling, well-written and well-conceived plot to be found in between those encounters, along with some fascinating, unexpectedly intelligent and nuanced dialogue and some very good acting, not to mention extraordinary cinematography (to be expected in the Caribbean) and good music.
It takes a while to figure out who the central characters of Black Sails are, so skip this paragraph if you want to do that figuring out for yourself. Toby Stephens stars as the mysterious Captain James Flint, the most successful and feared pirate in the Caribbean. He’s based in the pirate town of Nassau on New Providence Island, which is governed by Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael) but run by his daughter Eleanor (Hannah New). Other key characters include Flint’s closest associate, Gates (Mark Ryan); Flint’s first mate, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper); Flint’s mysterious friend Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes); Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a woman who knows how to use sex for power; Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), a particularly nasty pirate captain; his first mate Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Rackham’s close friend Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). Oh, and I must not forget a character whose name I didn’t really catch until well into the second episode, a young would-be pirate by the name of John Silver (Katrina failed to mention that there was a connection to Stevenson’s novel, something which would certainly have piqued my interest).
My biggest complaint of the series is that they killed off my favourite character (I won’t say who) in the first season. That was very unwelcome, especially because of how it was done, but other characters became more interesting after that and the incident was addressed a number of times in a satisfactory way, so …
The casting is inspired, and the acting, as I mentioned, is very good for TV. Since I’m not a fan of pirate violence/action, I don’t think of Black Sails as a guilty pleasure - it’s a real pleasure. If you can tolerate and overlook the violence (difficult for me, but worthwhile in this case), Black Sails is, in my opinion, actually an excellent example of good serial television and gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.